From time to time, we all resonate with the lyrics in that old Beatles song—”It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been working like a dog.” But what happens when joking about the 9-5 grind turns serious? When what we feel about our working lives isn’t in jest but indicates something a little more sinister?
If the work-life balancing act feels tough to manage, employee burnout might be the culprit. And if you’ve ever experienced it, you’re not alone. Burnout is pervasive in our culture, and it has far-reaching impacts on productivity, morale, and retention.
In this post, we’ll explore the topic of employee burnout and its effect on modern business, including definitions, signs, and strategies to prevent the turnover cycle. As always, we’ll also point you to practical solutions, like Erudit’s Employee Sentiment software and metrics, so that you can make headway on creating people-first policies.
What is employee burnout?
Generally speaking, employment researchers and HR pros describe burnout as a state of chronic physical and emotional exhaustion that introduces feelings of cynicism and detachment from a job, career, or workplace.
Even the Mayo Clinic, a world-renowned medical institution, has thoughts on how to define the burnout epidemic in terms of its relationship to our everyday tasks.
“Job burnout is a special type of work-related stress—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”
Burnout differs from typical stress because of its intensity and duration. Yes, we all experience moments at work that fluster us. But when those situations simply won’t go away (and when we start to embody them), that’s when the burnout battle turns intense.
3 major explanations for employee burnout
As we explore why burnout happens, we must separate the concept of everyday stress from long-lasting mental pressure. Factors like excessive workload, lack of autonomy, poor recognition, discrimination, and core value discrepancies can discourage most high-performing employees. When these issues endure over months or years, it’s difficult to keep a positive outlook.
Additionally, a mismatching set of values between the organization and employee leads to burnout. That’s because when employees are at odds with major aspects of their work lives, there’s noticeable friction both professionally and personally.
Below are three major reasons why employees struggle with mental and emotional burnout.
1. Stressful or excessive workload
Having more tasks that we can accomplish in a day’s work is a fairly normal occurrence in the modern workplace. But it’s when the never-eneding to-do list builds over time, becoming a verifiable mountain of work, burnout happens. Vantage Circle describes the damaging workload cycle like this:
“When employees have a limited amount of time to complete their tasks, it becomes difficult for them to maintain the quality of the work. And when this happens, employees might not feel satisfied, leading to frustration. This, in turn, will give rise to a significant number of burned-out employees in your workplace.”
A too-large workload happens for many reasons, some of which are in the employer’s direct control. For instance, if a manager fails to delegate, one employee bears the burdens that should realistically go to other team members. Unrealistic deadlines from upper leadership also have an impact on how workers process and handle their own workload.
2. Lack of autonomy and personal choice
There’s also evidence that employees burn out more often when they feel out of control. This happens in highly regulated work environments in which employers closely monitor work time, daily routines (like clocking in and out or taking lunch breaks), and job performance.
Even in flexible, remote, or hybrid settings, however, employees want to know that employers respect their time. So if your status quo is micromanagement—pump the brakes. Give staff members some level of control over how, when, and why they complete work assignments in the first place.
3. Strenuous work relationships
Peer relationships in the workplace drastically change performance outcomes, and toxic workplace cultures significantly hinder employee well-being. Employees may not satisfy all their relationship or conversational needs at work, but the overall mood should be team-oriented and collaborative.
When employees constantly have to deal with negativity at work—from colleagues, peers, or upper managers—the emotional toll is heavy. That’s why smart employers always keep tabs on working relationships before problems spiral into dangerous burnout territory.
To build a healthier sense of workplace community, Greater Good Magazine advises “encouraging volunteerism and building more inclusive cultures that are less competitive and more cooperative.” Give employees a common mission, and unite them with positive corporate values.
Understand the signs and symptoms of employee burnout
There’s no one-size-fits-all process for spotting burnout. Everyone expresses their stress differently, which means that some people are fairly obvious while others keep their emotional and mental triggers under wraps.
Whether employers spot the signs immediately, however, doesn’t alter the severity. Symptoms like chronic fatigue, forgetfulness, physical issues (such as headaches and increased illness), loss of appetite, anxiety, depression, anger, and decreased job performance are all on the table. The problem? It’s nearly impossible to perform any type of job well under these circumstances.
Naming symptoms early helps organizations mitigate the effects of burnout and implement preventative measures to keep employees on track.
Fatigue and lack of motivation
When professional enthusiasm dips, our general sense of energy, purpose, and motivation also declines. If employees already dread the day’s work before it even begins, maintaining regular performance is a tiring chore.
The reason that fatigue accompanies burnout is that exhaustion (both in physical and mental forms) is a response to episodic stress. The University of Texas at Austin Human Resources Center attributes this response to “recurrent hyper-disruptive events.”
In layman’s terms, it’s like this—when tough scenarios bother us for a very long time, we actually wear down physically and emotionally, bringing less of ourselves to work every day.
Forgetfulness and inefficiency
Burnout psychologically changes the way we process work responsibilities. Researchers and medical professionals who have studied this phenomenon point to physical changes in our brains (particularly the prefrontal cortex) in response to stressful environments. What happens, exactly? The part of our brain responsible for reasonable thought weakens.
As Amy Arnsten, a neuroscience professor at Yale School of Medicine, told CNN:
“By weakening [the prefrontal cortex], experts say burnout can impact our ability to pay attention and retain memories, making it harder to learn new things and increasing the risk for mistakes.”
Unfortunately, that sense of forgetfulness isn’t just present at work. Employees might start to take professional problems home with them, leading to a disruption in their home lives and family relationships, too.
Resentment and irritability
Dr. Sharon Grossman, known on LinkedIn as “The Burnout Doc” highlights a lesser-known symptom of employee burnout—resentment. According to Dr. Grossman, employees who handle burnout aren’t just upset with their employers; they’re also unhappy with themselves.
Why so? Burnout creates a lack of motivation, which causes many individuals to feel stuck, trapped, and worthless. Over time, this negativity seeps into everyday interactions, creating additional stress and anger. It’s a vicious cycle that usually only stops when the employee seeks outside help or finds another opportunity elsewhere—neither of which are great options for employers that want to retain more of their best people.
Strained personal relationships
Burnout results in emotional disengagement, introducing more stress to our relationships both at work and at home. Nicole K. McNichols Ph.D., offers the following reminder about our human ability to separate the professional and personal—
“Consider that our feelings, regardless of their source, travel with us into all aspects of our lives. Although we may aim to compartmentalize work and family, we ultimately are just one person.”
Employers and managers, take note. When employees start to have difficulty getting along with others, or if they mention that they can’t shake stressful vibes even after they clock out for the day, it could be time to make sweeping changes to how your teams operate.
How to prevent employee burnout
As with many other maladies, the best cure for employee burnout is good, old-fashioned prevention. Early identification plays an important role in recognizing how employees relate to one another and how they perceive themselves at work.
Here are a few practical steps you can take to ensure that your organization, team, or department is able to halt burnout before it blossoms.
Take proactive measurements
An employee engagement platform like Erudit keeps daily tabs on metrics like employee experience, burnout, and engagement. Even though some organizations rely on quarterly surveys and annual performance reviews, these instruments miss the mark when it comes to measuring sentiments regularly.
To create a healthier work culture (and one that stops burnout in its tracks), you simply can’t take action only once per year. People leaders need real-time, accurate data to enforce new protocols and programs that serve everyone’s best interests.
Create a more supportive work environment
According to the Limeade Employee Care Report, 40% of employees name burnout as a top reason for leaving a job. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With more holistic employee offerings, you can protect your roster of VIPs and keep them engaged.
What does a supportive work environment really look like? The options are endless, but consider how to incorporate these best practices.
- Onboard all team members with clear, transparent expectations and training.
- Protect employee confidentiality and privacy, even when they have concerns.
- Communicate corporate values and hold everyone accountable to them.
- Provide positive perks and incentives (free to enjoy or based on merit).
- Step in early to correct and respond to valid employee concerns.
- Build connection and community between team members for better mental health.
No matter how you build supportive frameworks, ensure that everyone knows about where to turn for extra help. If you’ve got stellar programs but no one knows how to enjoy or access them, you’ll miss out on vital ways to prevent burnout.
Offer expanded growth and development opportunities
Lack of job opportunity and poor professional development are top reasons for employee turnover. Without anywhere to climb on the ladder of success, many workers simply check out. When they have to still conduct work that they’re no longer passionate about, burnout increases.
How can employers step in and fix this crack in the system? By mentoring employees closely and investing in their long-term career growth.
Although this doesn’t look like giving everyone a promotion just for the heck of it, it does mean providing workable feedback and realistic opportunities for diligent workers. A safe environment to share, learn, and grow also sets top workplaces apart from those that simply ignore burnout and brush employee ambition under the rug.
Use Erudit’s AI-powered tools to reduce employee burnout
Erudit provides actionable insights to identify burnout risk factors and enhance the comprehensive employee experience, regardless of whether your team operates in a shared office location or remotely.
Real-time engagement levels and sentiment analysis enable organizations to understand what’s going on behind the scenes, all while respecting employee confidentiality and privacy.
Additionally, Erudit's employee retention software and heat maps provide a visual about when (and why) your top performers are less enthusiastic than normal. Rest assured, we’re not just pinning data points on a graph. We collaborate with talented behavioral psychologists to help companies get a better read on tangible employee experiences, day in and out.
>> Grab your own Cultural Assessment from our team, free when you start a 30-day trial. <<
Break the burnout cycle
Understanding, identifying, and preventing employee burnout is crucial for maintaining a healthy and productive work environment. The responsibility for intervening early falls on everyone in the organization, from executives to early-stage people managers.
Need a helping hand? We’ve got your back. Explore the many ways that Erudit -AI-powered people software enhances workplace culture and prevents burnout to help you protect your best investment—your people.